You can see the Grand Canyon in many ways: on a guided tour, on foot, on a bike, on a mule or horseback, by air, by motor coach, or via a white-water adventure. In some cases, you’ll need to plan ahead (four months to a year ahead for river expeditions, mule trips, or popular backpacking destinations), but even if you get the urge to take a tour after your bags are already unpacked, you’ll have several options.
A good place to start is at one of the transportation desks located around Grand Canyon Village. Think of the transportation desk as a concierge service focusing on tours. You’ll find them at Grand Canyon Visitors Center and in Maswik, Bright Angel, and Yavapai Lodges. The transportation “concierge” can describe tour options and help you make reservations. Desk hours vary seasonally.
The Grand Canyon tradition of mule tours began more than 100 years ago, when miners and prospectors began guiding tourists into the canyon’s depths on sturdy, dependable mules. Among the riders depicted in historic photos of the Bright Angel Trail are Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and Arizona’s indomitable Sharlot Hall.
Spending a day on the back of a mule isn’t for wimps. Riding requires good strength, especially in your back and abdominal muscles—and after several hours in the saddle, your bottom might not be the only part that’s sore. But it’s a great way to see a lot of the canyon in a relatively short time.
Xanterra Parks & Resorts offers a couple of options for mule rides into the canyon: a day ride to the Abyss overlook and two- or three-day rides with a layover at Phantom Ranch. The Phantom Ranch trip ($482 one night, $674 two nights, reduced rates for second person) begins in the morning at the corral near the Bright Angel Trail. After lunch at Indian Garden, riders continue to the bottom of the canyon and Phantom Ranch, a total of 10.5 miles (about 5.5 hours). The return trip, after breakfast on the second or third morning, is via the South Kaibab Trail, 7.3 miles (4.5 hours).
The cost includes meals and a stay at the Phantom Ranch cabins. Discounts are available for additional people in the same party. A duffle service is available for those who want to take more than the basic essentials. Those who make the wise choice to stay a second night can spend a day stretching sore muscles by hiking and exploring the inner canyon, or resting and enjoying the shady oasis of Phantom Ranch before saddling up for the return trip.
Although previous riding experience isn’t necessary, height and weight restrictions are observed. Riders must be at least 4 feet 7 inches tall and weigh 200 pounds or less in full gear. Riders must speak English, must be in good health, and cannot be pregnant. Children 15 and under have to be accompanied by an adult.
Reservations for overnight rides to Phantom Ranch can be made by calling Xanterra South Rim (303/297-2757 or 888/297-2757) up to 13 months in advance. The tours often fill up quickly. Last-minute cancellations are possible, however, and you can add your name to the waiting list at one of the transportation desks. The waiting list is shortest in winter, when cancellations are most likely.
Confirm your reservations (928/638-3283) 2-4 days prior to your ride, not only to hold your place but also to learn about the latest weather and trail conditions. It’s preferable to check in at the Bright Angel Lodge transportation desk the day before your trip so you can attend an orientation and weigh-in session. If you fail to check in by 6:15 a.m. on the day of your ride, you risk losing your reservation and deposit.
A new option for those who don’t have the time (or nerve) for the long journey into the canyon is the Abyss Overlook mule tour ($119). This three-hour trip departs twice daily from the historic livery barn for a pleasant ride through the forest to the Abyss, a precipitous overlook along the West Rim. Reservations are required, and riders must check in at Bright Angel Lodge at least 90 minutes prior to departure.
Xanterra sells DVDs and videotapes of mule trips (Mule Trip Videos, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, P.O. Box 97, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023) that are useful as keepsakes or as preparation for a trip.
Apache Stables (928/638-2891, www.apachestables.com) offers the only horseback tours near the South Rim. One-hour ($49), two-hour ($89), and campfire ($59) rides are available. Guests can pack hot dogs and fixings to cook over the campfire. Wagon rides ($26) are also available. Rates are discounted for children, who must be accompanied by an adult. None of the tours go below the rim but travel instead on National Forest lands that adjoin the park. The stables are located on Moqui Drive (Forest Rd. 328) between Tusayan and the park’s south entrance.
Walking and Hiking Tours
Free ranger-guided hikes vary from a gentle nature stroll to a challenging four-hour hike to Cedar Ridge. Hikes focus on fossils, geology, flora and fauna, archaeology, and other topics. Walking tours include a stroll through the historic village. Tours and talks are scheduled throughout the day at various locations around the village, including Lookout Studio, Yavapai Observation Station, or the shady veranda at Verkamp’s. Twice-daily tours of the Tusayan Ruins, located on the East Rim, last 30-45 minutes. Though fewer offerings are available in the winter, nature hikes and moonlight walks are usually among the year-round choices. See The Guide for the current program schedule.
The Grand Canyon Field Institute (GCFI, 800/858-2808, www.grandcanyon.org/fieldinstitute) offers guided walking and hiking tours, some suitable for families with children as young as 10 years. GCFI is a nonprofit park partner with the goal of educating visitors and helping them enjoy the canyon.
Bright Angel Bicycles (928/814-8704, www.bikegrandcanyon.com) rents bikes and offers a guided tour twice daily during spring and summer. The 5.6-mile West Rim ride ($40 adults, $32 children) includes all gear and lasts about 2.5 hours, traveling from Hopi Point to Hermits Rest. Guides stop at several overlooks en route. Round-trip shuttle service is included.
To see the canyon by helicopter or plane, you need to start outside the park. The nearest airport is in Tusayan, with airfields on the Hualapai Reservation (Grand Canyon West) and at Marble Canyon. Air tours over Grand Canyon are strictly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration and are confined to particular areas and routes that exclude the central canyon. (Arizona senator John McCain was among those who fought for quiet over Grand Canyon in 1987, setting a precedent for other national parks.)
Even after being restricted to the western and eastern ends of the canyon, there are nearly 100,000 air tours annually—plenty of options for those who want to fly over the canyon, and plenty of irritation for those who prefer natural quiet in national parks.
Keep in mind as you shop for a tour that canyon routes are identical among companies, and your decision will probably be based on a company’s customer service and the creativity of the packages it offers. Aircraft also vary in comfort, quiet, and visibility. Helicopter tours are generally more expensive but fly slower and lower.
Companies listed below offer fixed-wing and helicopter tours from Grand Canyon Airport in nearby Tusayan. You can also find tours originating in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Page, and other locations. Most companies discount rates for children, and some offer discounts for tours booked online.
Air Grand Canyon (928/638-2686 or 800/247-4726, www.airgrandcanyon.com) and Grand Canyon Airlines (928/638-2359 or 866/235-9422, www.grandcanyonairlines.com) offer options combining fixed-wing flights with helicopter flights, smooth-water rafting, and land tours. Tours are available in several languages.
Grand Canyon Helicopters (928/638-2764 or 800/541-4537, www.grandcanyonhelicoptersaz.com) offers tours in several languages. Charter flights and custom itineraries are also available.
Papillon/Grand Canyon Helicopters (928/638-2419 or 888/635-7272, www.papillon.com) offers a wide selection of destinations and tours, including package tours with hiking, rafting, Jeep, and bus options. Tours are offered in several languages in addition to English.
Maverick Helicopter Tours (928/638-2622 or 888/261-4414, www.maverickhelicopter.com) offers custom charters and tours, including wedding packages, rafting packages, and flights to the Skywalk on the Hualapai Reservation.
Following a tradition established by the Fred Harvey Company, which offered stagecoach or Harveycar tours during the early 1900s, Xanterra South Rim (303/297-2757 or 888/297-2757, fax 303/297-3175) offers year-round guided motor coach tours along the South Rim. Call or visit one of the transportation desks (928/638-2631) in Bright Angel Lodge, Maswik Lodge, or Yavapai Lodge for more information. Times vary according to season, but options include sunrise or sunset tours as well as scenic drives along Hermit Road and Desert View Drive. Tours are free for children age 16 and under with an accompanying adult.
The narrated Hermits Rest Tour ($25), more than two hours long, travels eight miles to overlooks along Hermit Road, also known as West Rim Drive. The Desert View Tour ($44) travels the East Rim, lasts nearly four hours, and stops at Lipan Point and the Desert View Watchtower.
The highlight of the 90-minute Sunrise Tour ($20) is watching the sun come up over the curtain of cliffs known as the Palisades of the Desert. The Sunset Tour, also 90 minutes, travels either to Mohave Point or Yaki Point, introducing historic Grand Canyon Village en route. Two tours can be combined ($57) in any order or on different days.
The Santa Fe Railway completed a spur line to Grand Canyon in 1901. The railroad partnered with the Fred Harvey Company to build and manage El Tovar, Hopi House, and other attractions, luring tourist services away from their original center near Grandview Point. Eventually, automobiles outpaced train travel, and the last train pulled out of Grand Canyon station in 1968.
For more than 20 years, the tracks were silent. They were on the verge of being torn up by a salvage company when a retired couple wound up with 20 miles of track as repayment for a bad debt. Against the advice of business consultants, they determined to restore train service to the canyon.
Today, Grand Canyon Railway (800/843-8724, www.thetrain.com) offers four classes of passenger service from Williams to Grand Canyon’s South Rim, including package tours that combine the train ride with lodging and guided rim tours. All train travel is on refurbished vintage rail cars powered by steam or diesel, depending on the season. Trains depart from Williams in the morning and leave the South Rim depot in the afternoon. The route passes through ponderosa pine forest, piñon-juniper woodland, and open prairie.
Although you won’t get any canyon views from the train, you might get Western-style skits or musical entertainment to break up the two-hour-plus ride. Ticket prices ($70-190 adults, $40-110 children) vary according to the style of railcar, service, and season. Group rates are available, and the railway offers seasonal discounts and specials.
Grand Canyon Railway’s Polar Express ($30 adults, $20 children) is a nighttime train ride through the forest complete with hot chocolate, cookies, and a visit to Santa’s workshop. Advance reservations are strongly recommended for this excursion, which is wildly popular with the younger set. Polar Express package deals add dining and lodging options.
If you have a cell phone, you can listen to two-minute audio tours for selected sites from Yaki Point west to Hermits Rest. Look for the numbered “Park Ranger Audio Tour” signs, dial 928/225-2907, enter the stop number, and listen to the narration. There are 18 audio-tour locations along the South Rim, linked to prerecorded narratives by park rangers. Topics range from night skies to Native Americans. The mini tours are free, but be aware that cell coverage can be spotty along the rim, and not all service providers cover park locations. If you prefer, you can listen to the narrations online (www.nps.gov/grca) or download text versions.
It’s not exactly Wii—at least not yet—but you can preview (or review) your visit to Grand Canyon through the park’s online multimedia offerings (www.nps.gov/grca). Choose from among ranger lectures and interviews, hiking and river-running podcasts, or fascinating videos about the canyon’s archaeology or geology. You can even go on a virtual raft trip down the Colorado River.
If this is your first visit to the canyon, you can accelerate your knowledge by signing up for an educational outing with several venerable institutions. Field trips carry on the legacy of geologists, archaeologists, and others who made careers of studying the canyon.
In 1993, the Grand Canyon Association (GCA), a longtime partner of the park, launched the Grand Canyon Field Institute (GCFI, 928/638-2485 or 866/471-4435, gcfi [at] grandcanyon [dot] org, www.grandcanyon.org/fieldinstitute) with the goal of offering in-depth canyon knowledge and skills. The GCFI programs incorporate day-hiking, backpacking, and camping that focuses on geology, archaeology, photography, or cultural and natural history, among other topics. Experts lead the single-day and multiday programs. Classes are geared to the general public, though participants often include canyon residents and employees who want to expand their knowledge. Family classes and women-only programs are also offered. Discounts are available to groups and GCA members.
In coordination with Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the GCFI offers an introductory two-day program called Learning & Lodging (928/638-2525, www.grandcanyonlodges.com, $356-420). Fees include meals and two nights at Maswik or Yavapai Lodges, plus two full days of guided hiking and bus tours. Topics include photography, ecology, and pioneer history. Children must be age 10 or older to attend.
The Flagstaff-based Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) began archiving and exhibiting examples of the cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau region in 1928. Among MNA’s educational programs are guided excursions throughout the Grand Canyon region. MNA Ventures (928/774-5211, ext. 230, ventures [at] musnaz [dot] org, www.mnaventures.org) feature a rim-to-rim backpacking trip, but MNA will design mild-to-wild custom trips for groups (schools, organizations, friends and family).
For teachers and students, the park’s Environmental Education staff offers free curriculum-based resources designed for grades K-7. Programs include field trips on geology, ecology, and history. Distance learning using video-conferencing equipment is also an option, and rangers may occasionally be able to arrange classroom visits. Teachers can attend free workshops to learn more about the program. For information on class visits or teacher workshops, see the park’s website (www.nps.gov/grca) or call the park’s education staff (928/638-7931).
Northern Arizona University (www.grandcanyonsemester.nau.edu) cosponsors a Grand Canyon Semester, a challenging immersion experience for undergraduates. Up to 18 credit hours focusing on current issues in the American West can be earned in the classroom, on the river, or around a campfire.
Travelers who stop en route to Grand Canyon will be greeted by racks and racks of colorful brochures advertising Grand Canyon tours by Jeep, off-road vehicles, or passenger vans. Many of the companies that advertise outside of Grand Canyon National Park are not park-approved concessionaires, so inquire carefully about route locations and guide experience before making a decision. To arrange a tour with an approved concessionaire, visit one of the transportation desks in the park lodges or visitors centers.
© Kathleen Bryant from Moon Grand Canyon, 5th Edition